Southern Illinois County Rejects Fracking Ban: 3 Key Takeaways

A major push from anti-fracking groups to ban hydraulic fracturing failed spectacularly last night, as voters in Johnson County, Illinois, rejected a ballot measure aiming to curb future oil and natural gas development in the region. The measure, promoted heavily by the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), was opposed by 58 percent of Johnson County voters. Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE), which closely coordinates with the deep-pocketed anti-fracking group Food & Water Watch, had also pushed for the measure’s passage.

Johnson County commissioner Ernie Henshaw said the vote sends a critical message.

“The people of Johnson County have spoken,” Henshaw told WSIU Radio. “From the beginning, our opposition said that they wanted the will of the people’s voice heard. Well, it’s been heard tonight.”

Henshaw added that the measure would have been harmful to local jobs and business, as evidenced by opposition from the Chamber of Commerce. “In my mind,” Henshaw said, “that ought to be a good indicator of what a group that promotes business felt about what this could do to business in Johnson County.”

Last month, in response to a national push by anti-fracking activists to promote the measure, a group of local officials formed Citizens Opposed to the Johnson County Fracking Proposition to make its own public push against the ban. The group emphasized that, if passed, such a measure could tie up Johnson County in costly legal proceedings (not unlike what is happening in Mora County, N.M., where CELDF spearheaded a similar ban last year).

State Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) also stressed that the effort was being led by out-of-state interests.

“There is an outside group coming into our state and trying to sell this community bill of rights,” Phelps said last month. “What I worry about is this group is going to bankrupt Johnson County.”

But with nearly 60 percent of Johnson County voters rejecting the anti-fracking push, residents are breathing a sigh of relief.

“We’re just relieved that it’s over, and were satisfied with the results,” added local resident Mike McMahon, who was affiliated with the effort to reject the anti-fracking measure.

Here are three big takeaways from the vote last night in Johnson County:

1. Anti-Fracking Groups Make Big Investment, But Lose Anyway. In the run up to the vote, groups opposed to hydraulic fracturing invested large amounts of time and money into pushing the ban. The Associated Press ran a wire story on the effort, and anti-fracking groups pushed the ban to local media throughout the region. Even Al Jazeera covered it. The Huffington Post ran multiple stories about the effort. Yet despite such a large investment, anti-fracking groups could not win.

2. CELDF Loses in County Without Any Oil Production. A common tactic for anti-fracking groups is to push for restrictions or bans in areas without any development, based on the belief that voters can be frightened about the risks of development without having any meaningful economic benefits to compare those “risks” against. In Mora County, New Mexico, where CELDF was successful in enacting a ban, there are no active oil or natural gas wells. In Johnson County, there is also no oil production. Perhaps the public has caught on to CELDF’s tactics?

3. Another Defeat for the “Community Bill of Rights” Campaign. CELDF and other groups, most notably in Ohio, have been pushing a “community bill of rights” to try to ban hydraulic fracturing at the local level. The measures are typically worded vaguely (the Johnson County measure would ban “corporate fracking,” whatever that means), and have been criticized as confusing to voters — perhaps deliberately so. Anti-fracking groups have used this tactic because they are unlikely to have much success if they promote their efforts primarily as a means of banning oil and gas development — their ultimate real goal — because voters routinely say they support expanded energy development by wide margins. Johnson County business owner Mitch Garrett, in addition to criticizing CELDF for trying to interfere in local affairs, said, “We wouldn’t be talking here today if the question had been posed, ‘Are you in favor of fracking, or not in favor of fracking?’,” suggesting the measure never would have garnered enough signatures to get it on the ballot if anti-fracking groups had been more honest about their intentions.

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